With the arrival of Lindsay Posner’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, this summer saw Holland Park Opera play host to a brutal portrait of impotence and despair. Such potential is inherent in a story whose eponymous character has his daughter kidnapped and raped at the behest of the Duke of Mantua and his circle, yet what made this production exceptional was that all elements of operatic stagecraft - both musical and overall direction, design and performance - were bent toward this sole purpose: the denigration of Rigoletto (Robert Poulton).
The restriction of Rigoletto and Gilda’s impassioned argument in Act 3 to stage right, as centre stage is dominated by the screening of a football match and a brief appearance of Pavarotti is one instance which attests to both the intricacy of the direction and the tragedy of Rigoletto. With the audience distracted by the comedy of centre stage, Rigoletto is left to languish alone, spurned by his daughter and ignored by his audience; powerless to convince anyone of his plight. Even the music is made to mock Rigoletto under the direction of conductor Stuart Stratford: when Rigoletto sings of the impending assassination of the Duke, the exaggerated gaiety and pomp of the score seems to recall the line hurled at Rigoletto by the Duke’s courtiers: With children and with madmen, it’s best to play along. Similarly, Gilda’s (Julia Sporsen) measured, almost monotonous retelling of her kidnap and its aftermath worked masterfully with the repetitive score in effectively beating Rigoletto; unfeelingly hurling at him his daughter’s disgrace and his own powerlessness.
But it was the brilliance of the final scene that made this production exceptional. As Rigoletto begs his daughter not to die, for ‘If you go, I shall be all alone’, the ‘corpse’ in his arms remains unmoving. Instead it is from atop a storage container at the other end of the stage that Gilda stands and begs her father’s forgiveness. In the magnificence of the direction, Rigoletto’s impotence is fully, tragically realised as even while his daughter still lives, he is already alone, unable to save his daughter whose death was bought with his own money.
The pain and frustrated will of Rigoletto was wondrously portrayed by Robert Poulton, whose voice exuded an emotional heaviness throughout and whose capturing of grief blended beautifully with the serenity of Julia Sporsen’s voice in the final duet. This matching of voices was complimented by something somewhat rare in opera: convincing drama. The awkward, often overly needy embraces of Rigoletto and the quick shifts from anger to tenderness between the two conveyed a convincing father-daughter dynamic, while Gilda, though occasionally somewhat excessive, was by and large a successful embodiment of adolescence.
Though there were some minor flaws: Jaewoo Kim’s Duke of Mantua was lacking in force and often unconvincing during the Duke’s more sinister moments, while the drama of the chorus was disappointingly average. However, spectacular direction and performance made this Rigoletto a sure sign of a well established Holland Park.